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Double, Double, Toil and Trouble: The Nuts and Bolts of Soapmaking

Posted: Beauty & Body » Fun for the Family » Make-It-Yourself » Gift Giving | April 1st, 2005



By Susy Parker Goins

All soapmaking starts out the same: an alkali mixed with water and a base, which results in a salt. But once the two are mixed, where you go after that is up to you. See my previous article for an introduction to basic ingredients and recipes. This is not recommended for children to do with you.

A word about safety
Lye is a caustic chemical that burns. As a novice soapmaker, you’ll want to have some safety equipment on hand: goggles, rubber gloves, long sleeves, pants, shoes, lots of time. What you do as you get more experienced … Well, I’ve seen posts by folks who soap in their undies. (Yikes, what sort of lists am I on?!)

You also want to take utmost care in figuring the amount of lye you need for your recipes. Many soapers recommend you “superfat” or “discount your lye” in your recipes – have more fat than needed to assure all the lye is saponified. I use the lye calculator listed in the resources section.

Cold-process soapmaking
Using the amounts specified in your chosen recipe, measure/weigh the fats and put them in a non-aluminum pot. Heat the fats up to approximately 100° Fahrenheit. Measure the water in a separate container (not aluminum).

In a well-ventilated area, measure/weigh your lye. Add the lye to the water — do not add the water to the lye. Splashing, burning, messiness – no, no, no! The lye will heat up fast to more than 200°. You can use an ice bath or patience to cool it down to the magical 100°. When everything hits the 100° mark, pour the lye water into your oils and turn off the heat! (This is where the cold process name applies.) Then you stir. And stir. And stir. (A note from someone who spent days stirring an all-olive oil soap: A handheld stick blender speeds up the stirring process significantly.)

Keep stirring and watch the oil and lye saponify – that is, turn into soap. As your mixture becomes more soap-like, it will thicken like pudding. But it is still at a dangerous stage. Not all the lye has been processed. When you are able to leave “tracks” while you stir, you have reached “trace.” From trace, you can do a couple of things: pour your raw soap into non-aluminum molds or add some “effects” to it.

The advantage of cold-process soap is that your soap is not incredibly hot. The downside is that it is still raw soap with unsaponified lye floating about, which makes it dangerous. It takes six to eight weeks for soap to cure or dry out sufficiently for use. You wouldn’t want soppy soap melting away in your shower, now, would you?

Hot-process soapmaking
Hot process is the same as cold process up until the “turn off the heat” part. With hot process, you leave the heat on under your raw soap a little bit longer and hasten the curing process by cooking some of the water out of your raw soap. A great tutorial online can be found at www.geocities.com/toiletrytutorials/cphp.html. You do need to exercise caution with this process, because bubbling raw soap deserves it!

The advantage of hot process is that your soap is ready for use sooner. Curing time is cut by four to five weeks. The downside is that hot, bubbling raw soap is nothing to be trifled with.

Glycerin soap
Glycerin soap is a misnomer. It’s a term usually applied to transparent soap. All soap starts out with naturally occurring glycerin. Commercial soaps process the glycerin out to be sold as a separate product. Hand-crafted soap retains this glycerin.

If you want a transparent soap, you take the hot process one step further by adding a solvent to clear the opacity. Susan Miller Cavitch, author of The Soapmaker’s Companion (Buy on Powells.com) uses a combination of vegetable glycerin, sugar, ethanol (Everclear) and distilled water as a solvent.

The advantage of transparent soap is that it’s aesthetically beyond compare, with truer colors. The downsides are the added hassle of creation and that it produces a softer, not-so-long-lasting soap.

Internet Resources

Cosmetic Index (sources and resources)

Tons of interesting herbal and intellectual links

The Toiletries Library (recipes galore, vendors, tips, e-mail list)

Snowdrift Farms (recipes, information, ingredients, e-mail list)

Majestic Mountain Sage (lye calculator)

Rainbow Meadow


The Herbal Body Book: A Natural Approach to Healthier Hair, Skin, and Nails by Stephanie Tourles (Buy on Powells.com)

The Soapmaker’s Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch, Storey Publishing (Buy on Powells.com)

The Soap Book: Simple Herbal Recipes by Sandy Maine (Buy on Powells.com)

Transparent Soapmaking: A Complete Guide for Making Natural See-Through Soaps by Catherine Failor (Buy on Powells.com)

© Susy Parker Goins

An informal student of natural health for years, Susy Parker Goins received her certificate in homeopathy from the American College of Health Sciences. The self-proclaimed out-of-the-mainstream mama of three is a writer, belly dancer, actress, costumer and cook and will soon be celebrating 20 years of marriage to her husband.

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